Religion in Schools

Archived Responses: 

Son is learning religious songs in public school

March 2002

Dear Parents & Educators,
I heard my 9 year old son joyfully singing yesterday, and then I realized the songs made reference to ''Lord O Lord'' and ''take me to Mt. Zion, Lord''. My son said he learned these songs in music class, which infuriates me since he attends public school. On one hand, it's great that my kid is getting a music/singing class, but I am upset because what's done is done and I can't change the fact that now my kid knows these songs, despite my own highly feminist, everything-with-a-grain-of-salt agnostic beliefs. Do I have any grounds for recourse? What can I do? Isn't this a violation of our first amendment rights???

I have to say I'm of mixed emotion about this issue. I did a lot of singing in all of my public education (choirs up through college at a UC) and the majority of western music out there is christian-themed. The musical masters of the past many centuries did this presumably becuase everyone did and the much more authoritarian church of the time pretty much demanded it. However, these are great pieces of music no matter what the words are saying.

I too am some flavor of agnostic or athiest or something, and am very disenchanted by how most people of the world are doing the exact wrong things with their religious beliefs (ie using them for hatred, wars, elitism, etc). But on the other hand if I were ever to be a music teacher in a public school, I imagine a fraction of the songs I'd do would be older classics, which means some will be religious. As long as the teacher isn't trying to convey a lot meaning to the students from the words in these songs, I wouldn't worry to much about it, personally. Similarly I wouldn't be upset by my kids learning some songs/games/dance from other cultures that happened to be relegious in origin. MCM

If you don't allow your child contact to any religious songs in school, you are depriving him of some very beautiful music. Goodby to all the Bach cantatas, for that matter, nearly all early music such as Gregorian chants, bye-bye to major pieces that have an important place in our culture such as Handel's Messiah and Beethovan's Ode to Joy... the beautiful Masses and Requiums of Mozart... many other beloved composers who wrote for the Church or to honor religious holidays. Not just Christian music but for other religions too. And there is a wealth of more recent American music that you'd have to bid farewell to .. goodby to a lot of bluegrass, the great old country songs, and all those soul-stirring gospel tunes -- much of the music from the Civil Rights era was either adapted from earlier church music or used directly. Goodby Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson. Goodby to all the gospel tunes of Aretha et al. Personally, speaking as a non-believer and a major music fan, I would be much happier if my children were learning Hark the Herald Angels & Go tell it on the Mountain instead of pap like Rudolf & Frosty! Ginger
I am totally in favor of separation of church and state! But, I also believe that knowledge is power, and ignorance is not bliss. My daughter attends a local public school and has learned Jewish songs (we are not Jewish), Christian songs (we are not Christian, either), and so on. But, although these songs are religious, they are also (at this point) American Folk Songs. They are part of the fabric that makes up this multicultural, multireligious Bay Area. I would be a bit worried if she came home and told me that they were praying in school, or something like that, but to sing a song that has (or once had) a religious meaning seems fairly harmless, especially when that song has become one that belongs to us all, not just the religous among us. Enjoy your child's voice! Mary
This would freak me out too! What about the children in that music class whose parents are raising them in a Muslim, Buddhist, Druid, or Atheist family, etc.? In my opinion, a public school should not be teaching songs that reference deities from a specific belief system. You have every right as a parent to contact the school administration and ask that they examine the music teacher's song list and ask that this teacher remove the songs that are inappropriate for a public (funded by the government) school. Marianne
I am sorry to hear that your child is doing something that offends you, but please put this into perspective before you approach the subject. Are you only upset because it is Judeo-Christian? What about the new Muslim teaching that includes the children reading from the Koran, dressing up for Ramadon, etc? Does that upset you? If you are against all forms then by all means please talk to your principal. I don't like the increasing trend of parents not being able to stand their children uttering something for which the Country was founded, but openly embrace all other forms of ''religious enlighening'' from the public schools. I hope that you think before you act. Tolerance is not only for those who must tolerate your beliefs. Concerned Parent who wishes she could sign without reprocussions from the community.
There is a distinction, I think, between singing a song in the context of a music class and singing that same song during an involuntary religious ceremony. These songs are not being used to worship a deity, and have as much religious charge as 'Old MacDonald Has A Farm.' This country has a rich musical tradition of bluegrass and gospel songs that do contain religious references but are sung in a secular context. Janet
If your child learned songs with Christian overtones in the Berkeley Public Schools, I'm actually glad to hear it -- but surprised. It's been my experience that the schools here are TOO concerned about what you call ''Separation of Church and State'' -- and almost paranoid regarding any hint of Christianity.

I think you should relax and be guided by the fact that your child did not feel traumatized by this event...

The school is not teaching him religion. He learned a song that includes religious words. (a parallel would be teaching sex education -- learning ABOUT it isn't the same as having it or forcing others to).

You are the most important influence in your sons life. You can use the incident as a stepping off place for a discussion of religion. Tell him what you do (or don't) believe, and why. In your place I would be teaching him that tolerance also includes respect for, and interest in the religions of others, even Christians. Heather

OK, I know I will be in the minority here, but I don't think this is so terrible. At age nine, I'd be happy he isn't belting out the lyrics to some Nine Inch Nails number. If there are other signs of religious brainwashing at the school, OK, protest, but the fact that these songs have what sounds like some sort of basis in the Old Testament to me doesn't make them automatic anathema. You say your own philosophy is take it with a grain of salt - I'd take this with a grain of salt too, and perhaps a pinch of humor. Fran
Personally I don't see this as a separation of church and state issue. There is a difference between teaching and preaching, and just because a teacher covers a topic that may be related to a specific religion doesn't mean that they are preaching it.

In fact, our state has adopted standards of education in every subject, and at every grade level that include teaching children about different cultures and religions. Here is the link to the state's curriculum standards:

I did a cursory look into the Visual and Performing Arts standards and at about every grade level it specifies that students are to learn about varieties of music, and to analyze it from different historic and cultural perspectives. Based on that, I would say that your child's music teacher is simply following the standards she is required to teach.

By the way, I don't recall if you said what grade level your child is in, but if singing a spiritual song in music class is upsetting, then I would advise you to brace yourself for the future. In Social Studies your child will be learning about different religions as part of the state's curriculum.

As a teacher I have had some parents who questioned why I taught certain subjects. Believe me, it is not to promote my religious or cultural preference. I teach Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity because they are all required topics. I don't think that learning about these topics is detrimental to students anyway. We live in a diverse society. If the students aren't taught about different cultures and religions they can't help but have a very narrow view of the world. I suggest to parents that they read the text book that we use in class, that they talk to the students about what we are learning, and that they discuss their own beliefs with their children. Kids understand that not everyone is the same. They can handle knowing about something other people believe in with out adopting it as their own. a mom who is a teacher

I just want to add a little to discussion. Not only are these ''religious songs'' part of our culture, remember, they were often full of double meanings during slavery and the Underground Railroad. Another reason they are used so much is they are often limited in vocal range and are easy, repetitive melodies, good for inexperienced singers. Deborah